Over a span of six months last year, I faced several tough experiences at once. One of my long-time best friends and neighbors moved out of state, my “go-to” friend was diagnosed with cancer and died nine months later, and my long-term mentoring ministry—a source of passion and purpose—ended. Then, my home was broken into at night and the intruder entered my bedroom and woke me up with a flashlight in my face and demanded money. Thankfully, I was miraculously and completely physically spared and safe by the grace of God.
To say that I was ready for a new start—a new year—was an understatement. It wasn’t until a couple months into the year that I realized I had slowly slipped into a darker place. I was scarred, struggling, and stuck. Each of these life changes and experiences inflicted a deep sense of pain and trauma, and one event after another gave me no space to deal with them emotionally or spiritually.
I’m a single man in my upper 30s. I admit that I am fiercely independent. But I couldn’t “fix” this on my own. I needed help. Through prayer and some pastoral counseling, I tried to peel away my “I can do this” attitude and seek the comfort of God and others. I joined a small group, got the help of an experienced life coach, and tried to surround myself with Christian community (and installed a home alarm system).
A year later, a gift has come out of my trauma and pain. I have a new sensitivity and empathy toward others who’ve gone through tough, even traumatic experiences.
A Posture toward Healing
For someone experiencing pain and trauma, I first offer four antidotes that helped me and can help you move toward healing.
Seek professional help.
Hard experiences in life affect us all in different ways. Your traumatic experience may require that you talk to your pastor, small group, or friends—and I completely recommend this. But, if it’s affecting your life emotionally (e.g., anxiety, sadness, denial, fear) or physically (e.g., panic attacks, inability to concentrate, lack of sleep), you need to get a professional assessment from a trained counselor who can care for you. In my case, what I needed above and beyond my community was a life coach to help me look inward and make appropriate decisions outwardly.
Your experience matters.
When I looked at the struggles of others in my church and community, people who were experiencing true trauma—death of beloved family members, marital and financial crisis, mental illness, painful adoption cases stuck for months in courts—my problems seemed so small. But, someone from my small group reminded me that nothing is too small for God. He wants to help us and strengthen us (Isaiah 41:10). He asks us to “cast our burdens” on him (Psalm 55:22), and he gives us “rest for our souls” (Matthew 11:28–30).
Surround yourself with people who will care for you.
Trauma doesn’t heal in isolation. One friend asked me how I was doing soon after my friend passed away. I abruptly nodded and answered, “I’m doing fine,” in my natural mode of not bringing attention to myself and to move on the conversation. She knew to speak up, “No, you’re not. And that’s ok.” She gave me the permission to authentically share my struggle with her family then and into the future. She happened to be in the midst of a year of pain, loss, and trauma herself, yet she was willing to show she wanted to care for me, too. People want to care for you, especially if you’re involved in a small group—do not take away their opportunity to be used by God. Do everything in your power to surround yourself with people who can help.
Don’t think you’re weak because you’re not healed.
Painful experiences and trauma are triggered at the most unanticipated times. I still drive past McDonalds where I took my mentees to catch up on life and offer guidance, and I feel a deep sadness. I leave work and often have the urge to dial my friend who passed away, as I used to do during my hour-long commute. A noise wakes me up from my sleep, and my mind races with flashbacks (it happened again last night). My initial reactions are to think these feelings are silly, and to repress them.
Healing isn’t getting over what you went through; it’s learning to live with the new normal. Now when I experience sadness, triggers, or “post-traumatic stress,” I have a couple of friends in my community that have allowed me to call, text, or stop by. Your friends are not going to heal you, but they will listen to you tell your story. Each time you share your feelings, you take another step toward healing and knowing how to more effectively manage your loss.
How Your Group Can Help Those in Trauma
You may not have experienced a traumatic episode that affects you day-to-day or week-to-week. In this position of emotional strength and spiritual depth, though, you can help those in pain and trauma with some basic sensitivities. Here are three intentional ways you can help those in your community dealing with difficult experiences.
My small group provided me a target on the calendar each week. I knew that if I got to Sunday afternoon, I could verbally process with them, and they would listen, pray, and individually check on me. I didn’t need answers. But, I did need the group—each group member—to hear me and grieve with me. What they needed from me was to not keep my emotions bottled in.
Remember the details.
People remember the details of their traumatic experience to great detail—the anniversary of when it happened, where they were, what they were doing, what time it was. How many times have you heard someone say, “I remember exactly where I was when the plane hit the World Trade Center”? I’ve made it a habit to reach out to the family of my lost friend at special times—six months after we lost him, on his birthday, and when our beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series, for example. You can be sure that if someone has gone through something traumatic, a simple text saying, “I’m thinking of you today,” or a coffee invitation to check in will be a salve on an open wound.
I’ve had newer friends step in to cover some of those gaps that have been left from my past community shifting over the last year. I know things won’t be the same. In this extended time of transition and healing, I have hope for the new memories we will make and traditions that will be started.
Give assurance and speak the truth.
At times, I have defaulted to a defense mechanism response of “It’s not a big deal,” or “I know I need to just get over it” to protect myself from reliving pain. When I vocalize these responses, by God’s grace every time I have had a friend gently (or, not so gently in cases when my attitude requires it) correct me and assure me that my feelings are not out of the ordinary and I’m not healing “too slowly.” One friend said, “You are not allowed to be hard on yourself over this.”
God Gives Hope and Freedom
You can’t fix trauma and make it go away on anyone’s timetable. There will be periods where life seems back to normal, and then triggers will cause it to reappear. Healing takes time, finding a new normal is hard—and that is okay.
While it doesn’t take the place of professional counseling, I can’t think of a better outlet for working through pain and trauma than a loving, healthy, compassionate small group. If you are going through pain and trauma, find a group of committed Christians. If you have someone in your group going through it, let them know you are there to listen, to empathize, and to speak God’s truths and hope into the lives of the hurting.
Scripture promises in Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” And that is a promise we should all hold onto.
—Cory Whitehead is executive director of mission advancement at Christianity Today and a leader at City of Light Anglican Church, a new church in Aurora, IL.